Driver Distractions Can Come in Many Forms
At around 12:15 am, on Thursday, May 1st, a Houston woman was trapped and injured when her SUV ran a red light along W. Sam Houston Parkway and Westview Drive in west Houston. As the SUV entered the intersection against the light, it was hit by two other vehicles with sufficient force to flip the SUV onto its side. She was freed from the heavily damaged vehicle by Houston firefighters and transported to an area hospital in stable condition. The divers of the other two vehicles were not injured. The victim told police that she was distracted by her GPS device and that’s what caused the collision.
GPS devices are a terrific aid to driving. Yet, just as with any other item or equipment in a vehicle, if it distracts the driver, it can create a lethal situation in seconds. Driving experts note that although driving is virtually a universal experience in places like Houston, it’s still more difficult and complex than the average driver realizes. Safe driving requires multiple visual skills, such as watching the road, reading signage, monitoring traffic and other drivers, considering the lighting and weather and road conditions, checking the rearview mirror and checking gauges. All of these tasks occur simultaneously and require immediate and constantly evolving judgments as to relative speeds, distance between objects, perspective as to approaching obstacles and more.
Driving futher requires auditory skills such as monitoring odd sounds in the vehicle, squealing brakes, approaching sirens and auditory clues from the environment, such as construction, nearby trains, large nearby vehicles and more. And, such senses trigger cognitive responses such as anticipating approaching problems, evaluating dangers and assessing evasive or defensive movements, as well as biomechanical reactions like head and eye movements, hand-eye, eye-foot and other body movements like turning the wheel, stepping on the brakes or the accelerator, activating signals, sounding the horn and so forth.
Bearing in mind that all of this is going on concurrently, as other drivers are all doing the same things, and in real time all of it happens in tenths of a second, any distraction whatever diminishes driver control and increases the chance of mishap. Typically discussed distractions are pretty obvious deviations from the acute task of driving, such as eating, drinking, smoking, reading, applying makeup or shaving or combing hair, talking to passengers, adjusting the radio, cell phone usage, or being distracted by events or occurrences outside the vehicle. Yet, just as lethal are distractions which occur in the context of driving, such as checking to see if high beams are on, adjusting the mirror(s), checking the speedometer or gauges, reading a GPS, adjusting vehicle controls and so forth. In such instances, the very things placed in vehicles to keep us safe can become serious hazards.
There is obviously too little information in the superficial report of this tragedy to make any assessment of fault. But, as investigation continues, there will be a close examination of what the woman was doing with or hearing from her GPS device that completely took her mind off driving. One concern might be that the GPS gave her really goofy instructions. These devices are clever, but they are not certified by NASA. I have put in a destination on occasion and the directions the device gives me are weird to say the least. Thus, what GPSs tell you must be evaluated contextually. Also, the GPS may tell you to make a turn ahead that is either impossible or dangerous in real time. The device can’t see the conditions or traffic ahead; its directions are based upon simple geography issued in an informational vacuum. So, as with all devices, human judgment must always trump “aids.” If the instructed turn can’t be made safely, skip it. If the directions take you into obviously dangerous conditions, such as flooded roads, heavy construction, congested traffic, etc., proceed until the hazards are passed and then re-set the device.
Driving’s a tough job and, in Houston, more so. Use the conveniences in your vehicle wisely and remember that in the final analysis, it is always up to you to remain safe.